Visually Representing Slow Disasters

This post is a follow up to: “The Perils of Ruin Porn: Slow Violence and the Ethics of Representation

A classic brownfield site. Wikimedia Commons.

A classic brownfield site. Wikimedia Commons.

Slow Disaster

In A New Species of Trouble, sociologist Kai Erikson calls for the inclusion of “slow” crises such as poverty in the taxonomy of disaster. Disasters are usually considered sudden, abnormal events that create widespread trauma and destruction. But what about widespread trauma and destruction that happen slowly, insidiously, and chronically? Erikson argues for:

the notion that chronic conditions as well as acute events can induce trauma, and this, too, belongs in our calculations. A chronic disaster is one that gathers force slowly and insidiously, creeping around one’s defenses rather than smashing through them. People are unable to mobilize their normal defenses against the threat, sometimes because they have elected consciously or unconsciously to ignore it, sometimes because they have been misinformed about it, and sometimes because they cannot do anything to avoid it in any case (2).

His examples include homelessness and colonialism, but most are about the effects of waste, radiation, and pollution at Yucca Mountain, Three Mile Island, Immokalee, Hiroshima, and Cancer Alley. What these places have in common are  that they are “produced by human hands, they involve some or form of toxic contaminant, and they blur the line we have been in the habit of drawing between the acute and the chronic” (22). Slow disasters are now a regular, though relatively new and usually underrepresented, part of critical disaster studies though they have been part of discard studies for some time. Bringing these two fields together offers a set of productive vocabularies, analytics, and case studies for looking at some of the most pressing–and difficult to change–types of harm facing us in the 21st century.

Slow Violence

The toxic leftovers of acute disaster events are increasingly studied as “slow disasters,” as are slow-moving crises that cannot be properly called events, such as climate change. Analytical frameworks include “pulse and push,”  “fast and slow,” and “slow violence,” a term coined by Rob Nixon in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor:

By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. In so doing, we
 also need to engage the representational, narrative, and strategic challenges posed by the relative invisibility of slow violence (2).

In a previous post, “The Perils of Ruin Porn: Slow Violence and the Ethics of Representation,” I focused on how slow violence and chronic disasters create a representational challenge. Nixon’s book, in fact, looks at literary and fictional efforts to represent slow voilence because of the challenges associated with representing non-events. But what about visual representation? How do you visualize a non-event so that it imparts the severity of the problem without turning it into an event?

Representations of Slow Disaster

Report Card for America’s Infrastructure

Who is representing slow disaster well? Scott Knowles, author of the excellent book The Disaster Experts, asked this question at a recent American Society of Environmental Historians meeting. He gave one potential example: The annual American Society of Civil Engineers’ Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

Spoiler alert: America fails.

Once every four years, America’s civil engineers provide a comprehensive assessment of the nation’s major infrastructure categories in ASCE’s Report Card for America’s Infrastructure (Report Card). Using a simple A to F school report card format, the Report Card provides a comprehensive assessment of current infrastructure conditions and needs, both assigning grades and making recommendations for how to raise the grades. An Advisory Council of ASCE members assigns the grades according to the following eight criteria: capacity, condition, funding, future need, operation and maintenance, public safety, resilience, and innovation. Since 1998, the grades have been near failing, averaging only Ds, due to delayed maintenance and underinvestment across most categories.

The slow disaster is both the current ramifications of an aging, unsafe, poorly performing infrastructure, as well as the event-based disasters that will result when these systems fail on larger scales. While geriatric infrastructure might be seen as ruination-in-use, and thus an interesting case study for discard studies, the report card also focuses on several explicit cases of waste. The D+ given to hazard waste infrastructures, for example, are based on the insufficient funds for remediation of Superfund sites, the more than 400,000 brownfield sites awaiting cleanup, and the fact that one in every four Americans live within three miles of a hazardous waste site (see image above).

Left Behind, Weathering the Storm

Another example comes from Weathering the Storm: Rebuilding a More Resilient New York City Housing Authority Post-Sandy, a report authored by a large group of community-based organizations following Hurricane Sandy. The report includes a data visualization that compares the people who remained in public housing compared to the census data for the same area. As you can see, those who remain behind to weather the storm are disproportionately women, African American, families with children.

Weathering the storm-demographics overall-pp8

From Weathering the Storm: Rebuilding a More Resilient New York City Housing Authority Post-Sandy.

The authors are explicitly trying to turn public attention away from the fast disaster of Sandy to the slow disaster of chronic and increasing wealth inequities and uneven access to resources in New York City. These slow disasters cause some people to suffer more than others during fast disaster (see Superstorm Research Lab’s A Tale of Two Sandys for more).

Public biomonitoring

Another example of representing slow disaster is Open Profile Biomonitoring (Ryan et al, forthcoming) or Civic Biomonitoring (Morello-Frosch 2009). Biomonitoring is the measure of synthetic chemicals and heavy metals in human bodies by sampling blood, urine, hair, and breast milk. In the past decade, a new trend has emerged in NGO biomonitoring projects starting in 2003 with Washington DC’s Environmental Working Group’s “Body Burden: The Pollution in People” report. This report, and others since, include people’s names, portraits, biographies, and quotes along side their exposure data. The people chosen for these studies are “ordinary” people or celebrities who do not to work or live in areas at high risk for chemical contamination. Yet they are ubiquitously contaminated nonetheless.

Page from Commonweal's report "Is It In Us?", 2005.

Page from Commonweal’s report “Is It In Us?”, 2005.

Thus, this genre of scientific communication is designed to show the presence or amount of common synthetic chemicals that come from everyday exposures from indoor environments, food, and consumer products for which the health implications are still often unclear. Only a few hundred of the more than 80,000 chemicals in use in the United States have been tested for safety. Many are assumed to be endocrine disruptors or carcinogens associated with breast cancer, diabetes, obesity, male infertility, brain development, and more. These chemicals now ubiquitous in all bodies. These public biomonitoring reports are meant to communicate that the slow disaster has already arrived, even if the final effects are not yet clear.


All three examples above are forms of “data activism,” where representations draw on, or visualize, data because other modes of representation are not as good at showing the problem of slow disaster. These data visualizations are designed as “theaters of proof” (Latour), where viewers can see the phenomenon under study in “black and white.” We understand, all at once, the entire issue at play. In slow disaster, cameras and paint brushes are put aside for spreadsheets and timelines because they can show what is otherwise undetectable.

One of the most useful working definitions of disaster comes from Kim Fortun, author of Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. She has said that disasters are those situations for which our usual modes of triage no longer work. No matter what we do, we cannot address the effects of the problem. This is as true for massive geriatric infrastructures as it is for increasing wealth disparities as it is for ubiquitous synthetic chemical contamination. This is one of the reasons discard studies would benefit from cross-pollination with critical disaster studies; the concentration on systems of triage and relief, the urgency of events, and the analysis of how chronic phenomena relate to acute events are all useful for thinking–and living–through persistent waste and pollution.

This post is part of a series on Rob Nixon’s book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Other posts include:

Introduction to Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor by Ann Dance.

Sizing Up ‘Slow Violence’ by Josh Lepawsky.

The Perils of Ruin Porn: Slow Violence and the Ethics of Representation by Max Liboiron.

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of culture and technology at Memorial University of Newfoundland. She studies how scientists and activists make emerging forms of pollution manifest, particularly in cases of marine plastics and endocrine disruptors. Liboiron also manages the Discard Studies Blog.

3 thoughts on “Visually Representing Slow Disasters

  1. This is a welcome proposal. I have always included collective conflict in my course on Disaster Planning and Management perhaps because the initial and main focus of the course is on developing countries. Most of my references are from the UN and IFIs and almost exclusively on Africa.
    But there is a slightly different slow disaster scenario that is unfolding in post sudden disaster events. I am thinking specifically of post-Haiyan Philippines. I would disagree that the impacted communities “are unable to mobilize their normal defenses against the threat”, Indeed the violence that is being unleashed is in response to the mobilisation of the Haiyan impacted communities against the unabashed misuse of disaster response resources and the continuing suffering of the displaced and dispossessed – families watching helplessly as young girls sell their bodies to keep the families; young boys killed for not telling on the mobilisers. Some brave film makers have produced snapshots of this unfolding slow disaster but they remain in the world of AVAAZ, Change,org,
    Can we bring these real world events into the academic radar as they unfold? I am not sure but I feel it is our moral responsibility to at least try.

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